The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Lookback/Review
Treasure of Sierra Madre is a classic western tale of greed and an indictment of capitalism.
Before Gordon Gekko declared greed good, opening the floodgates for apologists to turn democracy into meritocracy, greed was bad. It ate at men’s souls and turned even the closest of friends against each other. Greed made you stab your partner in the back, poke an icepick in his ear or pop a cap in his ass. Greed was an addiction, once you have some, you have to have more. And gold was crack, meth and ice rolled into one big rock of jones. Gold had a way of “changing a man’s soul so he ain’t the same kind of guy he was before finding it.” John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre from 1948 is an indictment of capitalism and the insidious hold it takes on those who taste it. The film tells the story of three men, down on their luck, in a foreign country who prospect for gold. The yellow metal gets into their skin and threatens to blacken their souls. It is a personal story, told with humor and adventure, which warns that everyone is susceptible.
Filmed in Durango and Tampico, Mexico, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the first Hollywood movies to be shot almost entirely on location outside the United States. It lost the Best Picture award to Hamlet with Laurence Olivier, but nabbed the first father-son academy win: John Huston won Oscars for writing and directing, his father, Walter Huston, won the Best Supporting Actor Award. It is one of the most influential films of all time, giving birth to the gritty western films later made by Sam Peckinpaw. Stanly Kubrick called it his favorite film. The American Film Institute voted the line “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges” as the 36th best movie quote in motion pictures. Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs character panhandled Bugs Bunny in the 1950 Looney Tune classic cartoon 8 Ball Bunny.
The film was based on the book “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” written by the enigmatic socialist author B. Traven in 1927. Huston originally planned to film it for Warner Bros in 1941 with George Raft, John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson in the lead parts, but he had to shelve it to make his World War II documentaries. According to his 1980 autobiography, “An Open Book,” Huston was set to rendezvous with the reclusive author at a Mexico City hotel in 1946 to discuss the film, but was met instead by a translator named Hal Croves, who was authorized to make decisions for the writer and was hired as a technical advisor. It soon became apparent that Hal Croves may have been B. Traven in disguise.
I read an interview with Robert De Niro where he said that Humphrey Bogart always played Humphrey Bogart. I strongly disagree with this assessment. Maybe Bogie didn’t gain 40 pounds or have a vertebrae removed to better fit into a part, but people who say Bogart always plays Bogart should compare his mental breakdown here with his courtroom breakdown as Capt. Queeg in The Caine Mutiny or his portrayals of the unhinged serial wife-killer in The Two Mrs. Carrolls, the sociopathic writer in In a Lonely Place or even his vampire-zombie turn in The Return of Dr. X. They may be played by a person in the same body, but they’re as different as any two characters played by De Niro, or Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson, or any highly regarded actor that’s not hiding behind prosthetics.
Fred C. Dobbs is not Rick Blaine down on his luck, looking for a job, the original American Anti-Hero, he is an infected everyman. The worker corrupted. The biggest investor. When Dobbs loses his grip on reality to the pull of paranoia, we see a lost animal, devoid of human intelligence. Looking into Dobbs’ eyes are like looking into the eyes of a dog, there is a disconnect where no conversation is possible and where understanding cannot be breached. He captured this again in The Caine Mutiny, but that was a different animal altogether. Those schooled in Russian acting guru Michael Chekhov’s method would call it atmosphere. Bogart, who was very serious about the art of acting (he once won a Shakespeare-off against Richard Burton to see who could go farther into a soliloquy without taking a breath, and Bogart had cancer) and who was a contemporary of Chekhov, would probably just call it bullshit. He just meant what he said.
James Cagney said in order to act all you had to do was to look the other person straight in the eyes and say your lines. “But mean them.” You also have to listen, and in this movie you see that all the actors are so locked into each other that they stop acting and just start having conversations. The moments between Bogart and Tim Holt, not even their big dramatic scenes like when you see Holt’s eyes widen in the dark as he gets truly frightened by what’s happening inside Dobbs, but the little ones like where they give each other looks behind Walter Huston’s back, are so natural they should be taught as a complete subject in acting school. The subtle double-take he gives Dobbs as he’s leering over a picture of the newly dead partner’s new widow is comic and apprehensive and totally real.
Producer Henry Blanke originally planned to cast John Garfield as Curtain, but Garfield was unavailable. As much as I would love to be able to see Bogart and Garfield in the same movie, he may not have been able to capture the relaxed kindness that Tim Holt projected. Holt is known as a Western movie actor, he’s been inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. He is the son of Jack Holt who was a leading man in silent movies and a cowboy in sound pictures. He appeared with his son in My Darling Clementine and plays the bum who sits next to Walter Huston in the Oso Negro flophouse. Tim Holt was in the 1939 cowboy classic Stagecoach, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and starred as a Nazi in Hitler’s Children in 1943. He’d go on to star as Lt. Cole “Bolt” Thunderbolt in the 1957 science-fiction monster movie The Monster That Challenged the World.
The monster that challenges The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is Walter Huston, who stole so many scenes that the studio sent notes to John Huston to tone down the old man’s performance. Bogart said at the time “One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder.” John Huston wrote the part of Howard specifically for his father and persuaded him to take out his false teeth when he played it. Walter Huston didn’t speak Spanish and memorized his lines off of a recording for the scenes where he had to look like he speak fluently. Walter Huston started acting on Broadway in 1924 and won the New York Critic’s Circle Award for Best Actor for playing Dodsworth in the stage play based on the of Sinclair Lewis novel “Dodsworth” in 1934. His first major screen role was as Trampas in the western The Virginian in 1929 with Gary Cooper. He also played in Abraham Lincoln in 1930, an insane preacher in 1932’s Rain and James Cagney’s dad in Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston gives a masterful performance full of mischief and wisdom and he gets to do two harmonica solos. He also got his son high on local green, according to John Huston’s autobiography.
Bruce Bennett plays Cody, another prospector who runs into Curtain when he’s in town getting provisions. Bennett had been typecast in Hollywood after playing Tarzan in the movie serials, The New Adventures of Tarzan from 1935 and Tarzan and the Green Goddess in 1938. He got nyoinked in a few Three Stooges pictures and appeared with Bogart in Sahara in 1943 and Dark Passage in 1947. Huston did multiple takes of the campfire scene, force-feeding Bennett bowl after bowl of bean stew. When Bennett couldn’t eat any more, Huston broke for lunch. Barton MacLane was born on Christmas Day 1902 and died on New Years’ Day, 1969. He sold a play called Rendezvous to a Broadway producer with the caveat that he played the lead. The success of the play landed him a contract at Warner Brothers where he played an assortment of tough character roles, usually villains, but not always, in classic films, including Maltese Falcon, also directed by Huston and starring Bogart. On TV in the sixties he played Gen. Martin Peterson on NBC’s I Dream of Jeannie. The melody of what would later be Marty Robbins’ hit “El Paso” plays in the background in Barton McLane’s first scene.
John Huston’s cameo turn as the “fellow American” was directed by Bogart, who avenged Bennett by torturing Huston with multiple takes. The kid who sells Dobbs the winning lottery ticket is former Little Rascal Robert Blake, who would be better known as Baretta. Robert Blake’s first big role was as the murderer Perry Smith in In Cold Blood. The real killer of the Cutter family that the book was based on, said The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was his favorite film. Blake told Johnny Carson that he snagged the water glass and coffee cup from the set as mementos. Alfonso Bedoya plays the bandito in the gold hat. He worked in more than 175 Mexican movies along with his Hollywood work. Ann Sheridan is listed in the credits as a Streetwalker, but I’ve never seen her. And I’ve seen this movie more than a dozen times.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favorite western. It is the story of three basically decent men who get a crash course in finance. In the civilized world, “the biggest investor gets the biggest returns.” They learn that there’s “something to be said for the wilds.” It opens on a shot of the day’s lottery winners. The people of Tampico love their numbers, it drives their economy. What also drives their economy is cheap and usually unpaid labor. Fred C. Dobbs and Bob Curtain learned that the hard way, doing back-breaking work for a month before having to beat their boss, Pat McCormick, for the pay. (Bogart is known as a tough guy, but this is one of the few times you get to see him in a good old knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fight. The fight scene in the Cantina took five days to shoot.) Curtain and Dobbs pool the money they get along with the money Dobbs won off a lottery ticket he bought from a wet-faced kid and go digging for gold with Howard, an old hand who “never knew a prospector who died rich.” They ignore his warning that “not even the threat of miserable death” will be enough to save them from the temptations of gold fever. They waste water on fool’s gold, fight banditos on a train, endure a northern blast of wind and nearly crack each other’s skulls open on their way up the Sierra mountains. These guys weren’t “born in a revival meeting.”
The corruption of the gold works its way into each of them. Howard gleefully fans the flames of suspicion and leads the two men to hell just like Walter Huston did as Mr. Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster from 1941. Curtain isn’t immune, he almost walks away to leave Dobbs to die in a mine cave-in or would let Dobbs get bit by a Gila monster just to teach him a lesson. The gold-maddened trio “dig a hole” for a dead interloper, but they also heal the wound they dug into the mountain before heading back to civilization. Howard saves a kid and possibly Curtain’s soul in a scene with so many mountain people it looks like the Bogeymen scene outside of Toyland in March of the Wooden Soldiers. He doesn’t save Dobbs though. Banditos corner him when he’s alone and pick over him like vultures before they chop off his head and take off with his burros. The gold disappears, back to where it came from.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t known as a comedy, but it has its share of laughs. Classic laughs. Walter Huston’s happy cackle has become iconic, even referenced on The Simpsons. Humphrey Bogart gives one of cinema’s all-time great evil laughs. John Huston excels on location and is masterful with available talent. The scene where the banditos are caught, tried and executed by the locals is a wonderful example of the art of pure filmmaking. You don’t have to know the language to know exactly what’s happening. Huston skewers capitalism without getting preachy. Instead he finds the perfect analogy. He cuts off the head of the infection and the gold goes back to the mountains. Somewhere there is footage of Bogart’s severed head rolling down the rocky hill. The scene was shot, but censors wouldn’t let it into the final print. Humphrey Bogart was reportedly disappointed that the scene couldn’t be shown in all its graphic glory, saying “What’s wrong with showing a guy getting his head cut off?”
John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and other silver screen notables took a plane to Washington DC at the end of 1947, right before this movie was released, to form the Committee for the First Amendment in protest over the HUAC hearings. They objected to the treatment of the “Hollywood 10” and the growing persecution of people with left-leaning beliefs who were labeled a threat to capitalism. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre bared the threat of capitalism. It didn’t do it through protest, but by nakedly showing the rot of greed. Gold isolated the characters from themselves and each other. It put them at each other’s throats. It made one of them so blind he got killed over it. He didn’t take it with him. None them did.